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The President’s Barber – an awkward film that’s difficult to categorise

Lim Chan-sang’s The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, 2004) was the first KCC screening of 2013, in which we will be seeing films featuring four actors each of who will be coming to London for a Q&A. The first three months feature Moon So-ri, who will be in London for a screening of Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha on 4 April.

Song Kang-ho as the barber
Song Kang-ho as the barber brushes down the President

The President’s Barber is a bizarre political satire set during Park Chung-hee’s presidency, in which a barber working in Hyojadong, a district to the west of the Gyeongbokgung and close to Cheongwadae, ends up as the President’s personal hairdresser. There’s some amiable humour as the lower-class worker and his family gets used to rubbing shoulders with people at the centre of power, and this is the sort of comedy that Song Kang-ho, who plays the barber, does extremely well.

The atmosphere changes when North Korean agents sent to assassinate the president are believed to have introduced a virulent strain of diarrhoea into the South Korean population, and the KCIA make an unexplained leap of logic that anyone who has diarrhoea is a communist sympathiser. The faithful barber is forced to turn his son in to the police, but the boy (in scenes which must seem distasteful to people who have suffered at the hands of the KCIA) seems to enjoy the torture sessions. Nevertheless the strangely technicolor electric shocks deprive him of the use of his legs, and the barber spends much of the rest of the film trying to find a cure for this odd affliction. That the son, whose birth was inextricably linked with Park Chung-hee’s coming to power, manages to walk again once the president is dead, and the barber refuses to continue serving Chun Doo-hwan, points to this film being a criticism of the state of the Republic under Park Chung-hee.

As Park Myung-rim (a professor of political science at Yonsei University) notes in an article in the Joongang Ilbo, Korea’s attitude to President Park has changed over the years, and at one point he was ranked alongside King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun-shin as a national hero. That was during the IMF crisis, and by the time this film was made in the Kim Dae-jung / Roh Moo-hyun era the focus was more on Park’s human rights abuses. But the film’s harsh political message is at odds with its otherwise gentle humour.

Moon So-ri
Moon So-ri as The President’s Barber’s wife

Song Kang-ho plays his usual simpleton-with-a-heart-of-gold character; Moon So-ri doesn’t have much to do as his wife; and overall the film is rather too long for the quality of the content. Fortunately, with Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis and Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife screening later in the season, we have had the opportunity to see films which are much more worthy vehicles of Moon So-ri’s talents.

Lim Chan-sang: The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, 2004) score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0

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